"COLD SPRING, NEW YORK - The sonar revealed a sturgeon roughly twice as long as anything seen that day—confidently estimated at just over 14 feet from nose to tail tip. That’s a size that, even decades ago, even a century ago, was considered a rarity. But now, it was unimaginable given what this species had endured.
“When I first saw it, I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’”(John A.) Madsen recalled. But there was no mistaking the image. He and his colleague, Dewayne A. Fox of Delaware State University, have extensively used this sonar system in sturgeon habitat elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast and in the Republic of Georgia, home to half a dozen species of sturgeon, all deeply endangered, including Huso huso, which can reach lengths of 18 feet and is the source of Beluga caviar.
Amanda Higgs, a state biologist who’s been tagging and netting Hudson sturgeon for more than a decade, was out on the water working nearby that day. As news of the sighting spread, she had a reaction echoing a famed scene in the movie Jaws.
“Our boat is way too small to deal with a fish like that,” she said in an email.
Biologists estimate a sturgeon that length could easily weigh 800 pounds.
One exciting aspect of knowing the Hudson has female sturgeon that large is that bigger females produce vastly more eggs than smaller ones—up to 8 million at the high end."
Albany Beef's Near Extinction - The Decline of Atlantic Sturgeon
What does finding a giant Atlantic sturgeon in the wild mean for the species and others in this environment? It is difficult to say. Even with the aid of modern technology, the fact that these ancient fish live in deep murky water makes it nearly impossible to study their status in the wild. While it is inspiring to discover a large mature specimen thriving for so long in an area with a history of over-exploitation, it is important to put such findings into perspective.
150 years ago Atlantic sturgeon were one of the most abundant sturgeon species of eastern North America. For a period lasting over 100 years "Albany beef", or the meat from Hudson River sturgeon, was a staple protein for people living in the area. A description of the sturgeon trade written in 1856 by Joell Munsell even labeled Albany citizen as as having “emigrated from Sturgeondom” or as being “Sturgeonites” because their diets were so dependent on Albany Beef.
During the United States' Civil War era, fishermen first began to report on the increased scarcity of sturgeon in the Hudson. To save the Albany beef industry and revitalize the Hudson river population, New York began importing Atlantic sturgeon from other US rivers, transporting young fish from systems as far away as the Kennebec River in Maine and the Saint Johns River in Florida. Despite relocating countless Atlantics to the Hudson River, the sturgeon's slow growth rate coupled with their susceptibility to an industrializing world doomed any attempts to bring the species back from the brink and supply the demand for sturgeon meat. By the 1930's the Hudson sturgeon trade had digressed to a point where the term "Albany beef" itself seemed to disappear from the English lexicon. Although not commonly harvested for their caviar, Atlantic sturgeon were further caught up in the "Black Gold Rush" of the 20th century, an event in which the popularity of caviar contributed to the destruction of wild sturgeon populations across the globe.
Uneven regulation from US state and federal governments allowed harvesting of Atlantic sturgeon in the Hudson up until the 1990's, a time when most of the world finally began banning wild sturgeon harvests to save the species from extinction. While, at this point, most fishermen in the Hudson area were releasing any sturgeon found in their catch nets, some individuals continued their exploit for profit. Much to the despair of fishermen and conservationists alike, sturgeon in the river seemingly disappeared altogether around the turn of the century. Underhanded operations had expanded, and many local fish populations were at risk.
The Come-Back of Wild Sturgeon and Other Hudson River Wildlife
Pressure from both US and international animal protective initiatives in the late 20th century forced many states to conserve the local wild sturgeon populations. In 1996, the state of New York banned sturgeon fishing in the Hudson River. Uneven regulation continued in New Jersey for another two years until the 40 year ban on Atlantic sturgeon fishing of 1998 was enacted on the coastal region. Harvesting sturgeon became increasingly regulated and outlawed for most species across the country, giving Atlantic sturgeon populations a chance to rebound. In 2012, five regional populations of Atlantic Sturgeon were listed under the Environmental Protections Act, considering the species as "threatened" in one region and "endangered" four others including the Hudson River. For the first time in history, not a single Atlantic sturgeon was allowed be removed from the Hudson or any other river.
It is clear that the under-regulation leading up to the 1990's, the Black Gold Rush's caviar craze and the Albany Beef industry from years earlier all played significant roles in decreasing the number of wild Atlantic sturgeon thriving in the Hudson. A century of over-catching among nearly killed off these ancient creatures, but modern efforts have helped spur their come-back in recent year. Population data obtained yearly from the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) shows the number of juvenile Atlantics have been steadily increasing since 2008. Today, the recovery of fish species in the Hudson river is encouraging, and a validation on the effectiveness of fishing bans like the one from twenty years ago. Although it is difficult to determine how many sturgeon are still swimming in these waters, simply seeing a large female return to lay eggs in the Hudson after years at sea is simply inspiring.
Atlantic sturgeon are not the only Hudson River wildlife to benefit from conservation. Two other andromonous fish, the stripped bass and American shad, have seen there numbers steadily increase since commercially harvesting them in the wild became illegal. The DEC says the upticks are a direct result of fishing bans in the Hudson and nearby coastal areas. Recreational fishing for striped bass is still allowed, but commercial fishing has been banned since the 1970s. Ocean fishing for shad was banned in 2005 by a coalition of Atlantic coast states and the DEC closed all fishing on the Hudson River in 2010.
Today, populations data show that American shad, stripped bass and Atlantic sturgeon appear to be trending towards recovery in the area. Hopefully, scientists and fisheries alike can continue to use cutting-edge technology (like the side-scan sonar that found the monster Atlantic sturgeon in the Hudson) to obtain accurate population data that can support conservation decisions. Studying these species in the wild, especially the Atlantic sturgeon, might be difficult, but it must continue to make sure they aren't lost forever.